Imagining what it would be like if the lead character in his college-set drama Felicity joined the CIA, JJ Abrams came up with Alias and thus set in motion a change of events where he would become one of the most prominent geek directors in Hollywood, rebooting Star Trek and helping to relaunch Star Wars.
Running for five seasons on the ABC Network, Alias had to have been one of most preposterously crazy shows on television, a fact that only helped make it so damn enjoyable. What could have been a straight forward serialised spy thriller crafted a very complex mythology, with ties to a Leonardo da Vinci style inventor creating artifacts that when put together in the present day could lead to the creation of a major weapon of mass destruction, and threw in complicated family dynamics, relationships and musical montages that parlayed its creator’s work on Felicity. Hell, its fourth season finale featured zombies.
Making a star of Jennifer Garner, and supported by a bunch of classy thespians such as Victor Garber, Ron Rifkin, Carl Lumbly and Lena Olin, launching the careers of Bradley Cooper, David Anders, Kevin Weisman, Greg Grunberg and Michael Vartan, whilst boasting special guest appearances from the likes of Ethan Hawke, David Cronenberg, Faye Dunaway, Angela Bassett, Isabella Rosselini, Sonia Braga, Joel Grey, Gina Torres and Quentin Tarantino, Alias was a brilliantly potent mix of high-octane action, brutal bouts of violence, great fight sequences, lovely wordplay, humour and some very complex narratives.
Very glossy in some ways, not to mention boasting great production values worthy of a feature film, it was filmed entirely in Los Angeles and yet the series managed to brilliantly portray foreign locales with clever use of locations and realistic use of green screen which made it feel like a $100 million feature film. No surprise Hollywood took notice of Abrams.
The series also boasted Michael Giacchino as a composer. One of the few television shows to boast an orchestral score, a trend that would also continue when Lost would premiere, another Abrams/Bad Robot production. The show looked and sounded like a grand, big budget feature film that the series became a calling card for many of the current generation of behind the scenes, Hollywood talent.
Amazingly, the show never acquired large ratings, however, something that was put down to the fact that the show became increasingly hard for newcomers to latch on to as the series went on, becoming ever more serialised and complex, with the end result being that you needed a pie charge or Venn-diagram to keep up with who was good, who was bad, and who was part of which organisation the show was featuring. You had SD-6, The Alliance, The Trust, The Covenant, anything that you could put the word “The” in front of, sometimes it was a surprise that The Syndicate from The X-Files didn’t appear. It may have been insanely plotted but it was also addictive and brilliantly produced cinematic television of the highest order.
An attempt to introduce more self-contained stories was made in season four, a slight revamp of the show seeing the heroes in a new set up called APO (Authorized Personnel Only) and which saw most stories wrapped up after forty-five minutes. It wasn’t bad, and several episodes in the fourth year were incredibly enjoyable, with a short story arc featuring a cloned version of series villain Arvin Sloane being a particularly fun highlight, but the show worked best when playing the long game, and this style reached its peak in season two.
A game changing cliffhanger at the end of the second year saw the shifting of paradigms within the show in season three, but there was so much going on that even fans struggled to keep up at times with the plethora of organisations operating within it, but the truth is the show was so much fun that it was churlish to complain too much. It never rested on its laurels and there was a feeling that Abrams and his team of writers, including frequent collaborators Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, Drew Goddard, Jeffrey Bell (former Angel writers who joined the show when Whedon’s series was cancelled) and John Eisendrath, took great joys in crafting such a complicated spy-fi series.
The show would sometimes throw in the odd stand alone tale even amongst the ongoing arc elements in the first three season, with one of the best being The Box, a two-part story in the first season that saw the series pay tribute to Die Hard when former SD-6 agent McKennas Cole, a surprisingly brilliant Quentin Tarantino, and a bunch of mercenaries takes the SD-6 offices hostage. The “hostage situation” is of course an old television standby, but Alias turned into a thriller worthy of any feature film.
For its glossy look and classy cast of actors, the show was never afraid to be darkly violent, with the pilot episode and the season one finale going to town with torture sequences involving extracted teeth which are genuinely horrible, whilst the fight scenes were legitimately bone crunching, and the use of squibs were some of the bloodiest on American network television.
Debuting the same season as 24, the Kiefer Sutherland starring real-time thriller would fully embrace the changes in the world and the war on terror, Alias on the other hand would go down a more fantastic route, James Bond by way of The Da Vinci Code. If Bauer was an escape using the real world as inspiration, Alias was escapism of a more fantastic kind mixing almost extreme plot twists and fantasy elements and mingling them with feature film style set pieces and an espionage setting.
Like 24, Alias had one of television’s all-time great characters at the heart of it. Jennifer Garner’s performance earned her a Golden Globe and made her a well deserved star. Fully capable of kicking ass, she was also a sensitive, soulful and charming presence, anchoring the show with good grace, humour and charm. It is one of the most quietly iconic roles in all of television, and Garner carried the show brilliantly.
With only five seasons, over a hundred episodes, and a storyline that builds and develops brilliantly with some of the most truly unpredictable twists, Alias is without a doubt one of the most underrated masterpieces in modern television and demands to be seen. Go ahead, watch it now and you won’t regret it.
AIRDATE: September 2001-May 2006
NUMBER OF SEASONS: Five
NOTABLE WRITERS: JJ Abrams, Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Jeffrey Bell, Drew Goddard, Jeff Pinkner, Jesse Alexander, John Eisendrath, Jeff Melvoin, Monica Breen & Allison Schapker, Andre Nemec & Josh Appelbaum.
NOTABLE DIRECTORS: JJ Abrams, Ken Olin, Jack Bender, Laurence Trilling, Jeffrey Bell,
NOTABLE ACTRESSES/ACTORS: Without a doubt, Jennifer Garner’s performance is one for the ages, and earned her a well deserved Golden Globe. Brilliantly, the show surrounded her with both a plethora of veteran performers and newcomers, all of whom added greatly to the show. Bradley Cooper obviously became the biggest star to emerge from the show, but of the supporting players it was Ron Rifkin and Victor Garber who were the most constantly amazing. Rifin’s villainous Arvin Sloane could sometimes show surprising compassion and goodness amongst his cruelties when he wanted to, whilst Garber’s Jack, Sydney’s father and one of the good guys essentially, could show moral flexibility when it came to doing the right thing.
In the middle of all the action we also had wonderfully charming turns from Kevin Weisman and Greg Grunberg who brought humour and charm to proceedings in a way that always made you want to see more of their characters, whilst the rotating door of major guest stars must have made the show the most starriest when it came to guest appearances since the Adam West/Burt Ward Batman television series.
BEST SEASON: Season two, which saw the show firing on all cylinders. It may have become increasingly dense for newcomers to get into, but if Alias had got its claws into you, the second season was an immensely satisfying year of television. Adding Lena Olin to the mix was a brilliant addition to the show, whilst the post-Superbowl episode Phase One was as legitimately game changing an episode of television that has ever been produced, effectively ending the format of the show and allowing it to go off in a new direction.
WORST SEASON:Probably the fifth, and final, season. Not a terrible year of television by any stretch, but with Garner’s pregnancy putting the show on a long hiatus, a shorter number of episodes and terrible treatment by ABC, it didn’t give the show the send-off it deserved, but the finale did bring things together beautifully and even if the season isn’t the show at its best, it’s still an entertaining year of television.
BEST EPISODE: Truth Be Told is as confident a pilot as there has ever been produced and amazingly felt like an entire season of television condensed into a single sixty minute episode. The world feels so formed and the characters so developed that it would be easy to imagine that there was about five seasons worth of television simply leading up to it. The episode presents a format for the show, throws it under the bus halfway through, and then proceeds to set up a new story by the end of the episode. It’s one of the most dazzlingly produced pilots ever made and cemented JJ Abrams as a talent to watch out for.
Honourable mention goes to Façade, from the third season. The third season was heavily criticised at the time for its increasingly convoluted narrative, but in this reviewer’s opinion it stands up pretty damn well, and Façade is worth watching the season for alone, not least of all a cast-against-type Ricky Gervais as a terrorist, which he proves to be very chilling at playing, with very little of his trademark humour, not to mention one of the most brilliant plot lines in an espionage television series, it’s a mini-masterpiece in itself.